The dirty secrets behind some gay cocktailing

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You may have already heard that higher rates of alcohol abuse occur among LGBT people than straights, but now an ongoing study is starting to identify and reveal the disturbing reasons why.

Last week, the American Sociological Association released early data from research out of Texas Tech University under the title, “Longitudinal Associations Among Discordant Sexual Orientation Dimensions and Hazardous Drinking in a Cohort of Sexual Minority Women.” 

Don’t let the academic mumbo-jumbo intimidate you. It means that lesbians and bisexual women feel an internal conflict between their orientation and the roles they play in society. The discomfort means that they are more likely to drink, contributing to how alcoholism became one of the dirtiest open secrets among gay people, according to Amelia E. Talley, lead researcher in the study.

“When you perform a role, for instance, if you identify as a college student, you know there are norms or expectations that go along with that role,” Talley said. “People who know what their expected sexual identity entails might sometimes feel shame or a negative affect as a result of not performing or identifying in the way that is expected.”

“Similarly, the result can happen internally,” she continued. “If a woman finds herself behaving in a way that doesn't match up with how she views herself, that creates an internal conflict between how she behaves and how she thinks she should behave based on her sexual orientation.”

The causes can be much broader when the surrounding world exacerbates the internal conflict, says Linda Ellis, executive director of the Health Initiative, Atlanta’s LGBT health advocacy group. 

“In my experience, it's not the internal ambiguity that leads to greater distress, but struggling against the external expectations that others — work, school, family, down to the intake forms you complete for every new job application or doctor's appointment — have that we must fit in one box or the other,” Ellis tells Project Q. 

“Even as we see more acceptance of lesbian and gay individuals, there's still an expectation that it's either/or: You get one box to check,” she says. “In reality, that one box, whether it's questions of sexual orientation or gender identity, doesn't fit the experience of all, and that causes distress.”

Gay culture centered on bars isn’t helping matters either, says Jeanne Higgs, Recovery & Wellness Program Coordinator at the Montrose Center in Houston.

“Much of the socializing that is done by women in the lesbian and bisexual community is done at bars,” Higgs says. “Traditionally gay bars have been safe spaces for LGBT people to socialize without fear of discrimination or harassment; in this environment drinking, is normalized and even celebrated, sometimes to excess. Add to this the fact that lesbian and bisexual women are responding to not only to sexism in our society but also heterosexism.” 

Listen up, guys. While the study and the experts were asked to look at women, the results should sound familiar to a lot of gay men, too. 

“We know that LGBT folks across the board can report higher levels of stress and sometimes depression, and that alcohol is often used as a way to calm those feelings,” Ellis says.

Higgs adds that the issue can be doubly alienating for bisexual people.

“Much of the research on health outcomes shows people who identify as bisexual as having the least positive health outcomes across the board,” she tells Project Q. “Often individuals who identify as bisexual feel they do not have a safe space in either the gay or heterosexual community and substance use can be seen as a maladaptive coping system for dealing with the anxiety of this sense of alienation.”

Issues with substance abuse get harder, not easier, as you get older, according to the study.

“There was evidence that it could be more detrimental to acknowledge or report these discrepancies as you get older,” Talley said. “People see you in a different light; you have to answer to friends and family or larger society about the changes you are exploring with regard to your sexual identity. It's difficult when you get older because of people's expectations that you should have your sexual orientation figured out. Younger women are afforded more wiggle room in regard to exploring their sexuality.”

Ellis in Atlanta agrees. 

“You can get away with some ‘confusion’ when you're younger, but at some point, the world expects you to pick a lane,” she says.

Two years in, the study continues with a look at more subjects and the goal of identifying resources to cope with the specific mechanisms that trigger alcohol abuse. In the meantime, both the Atlanta and Houston experts are here to help now.

“It's up to all of us to develop healthier ways of addressing the stress, even as we work to dismantle it's causes,” Ellis says. “The Health Initiative works to give folks healthier choices, whether it's food, exercise or social connections. We refer to LGBT led or friendly support groups, therapists and 12 step programs, and hopefully point the way to healthier options for all of us.”

In Houston, the Center connects people with several vibrant LGBT-affirming 12-step programs and itself has a program for those who need it,” Higgs says.

“The Montrose Center's Way Out Recovery Program is an intensive outpatient treatment program for drug and abuse/dependence,” she says. “Recovery is not just about getting sober, but about building a life worth living and developing support systems and better coping skills in the absence of substance use. 

“Our program is dedicated to issues affecting the LGBT community and includes inviting family of choice to participate in treatment,” Higgs continues. “We provide individual therapy, group education, connect clients with community resources and encourage participation in community recovery groups. We also have Recovery coaches to work with people who may be thinking of quitting, but need extra support to address possible barriers to treatment.”

Support is a recurring theme in both cities, and people should know they don’t have to tackle substance abuse alone.

“It's a journey for sure, and one that's easier traveled with support,” Ellis says.

Reach out to the Health Initiative in Atlanta, or the Montrose Center in Houston.

[American Sociological Association]

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